Greater Surbiton

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Is Islamophobia equivalent to racism or anti-Semitism ? The view from the Balkans


There is some resistance among liberal intellectuals to the term ‘Islamophobia’, because it is assumed that Islam is a religion, therefore an ideology, and it is questioned if one can be prejudiced against an ideology. Yet such a distinction is not satisfactory from the standpoint of a scholar of the Balkans; or indeed, from the historical standpoint generally. To treat chauvinism against a religious community as being fundamentally different from chauvinism against an ethnic or racial group is to superimpose a modern understanding of religion onto the past. We may believe in the ideals of the separation of church and state; and of religion as a private, personal matter of conscience; but it is anachronistic to impose this liberal ideal onto past human history.

We are all aware of the distinction between religious and racial anti-Semitism, but also of the connections between the two – of the fact that even the Nazis used religious background to determine who was Jewish. In the Balkans, at least, the model for chauvinism that anti-Semitism provides – in which prejudice against a religious community evolves into an ethnic or racial prejudice – is the rule rather than the exception. Religious and ethnic prejudice are not distinct categories, and it makes no historical sense to see them as such.

The Ottoman Empire ruled over much of the Balkans from the late Middle Ages until the nineteenth century, and it was the Ottoman system that laid the basis for modern ethnicity and nationality in the Balkans. The Ottoman empire was organised on the basis of different legal statuses for Muslims and non-Muslims, in which Muslims were the dominant and privileged group but Christians and Jews nevertheless enjoyed a degree of communal autonomy. This laid the basis for the different religious communities to evolve into separate nationalities.

When the Orthodox nationalities of the Balkans rose up against the Ottoman overlords during the nineteenth century with the goal of establishing their independence from the empire, the process involved the expulsion or extermination of much of the non-Christian population, which was identified as an alien, non-national element. This process of ethnic or religious cleansing was directed primarily against the Muslim population that was concentrated in the towns. But it targeted also the Jews, who were also concentrated in the towns and who were, in the eyes of the predominantly peasant and Christian rebels, equally alien and part of the Ottoman presence. This was something that occurred in the violence that accompanied the uprisings themselves, with rebels spontaneously massacring non-Christians. But it also took place more quietly in the decades that followed the establishment of autonomy or independence, as the new governments encouraged ethnic homogenisation.

Thus, for example, in Serbia during the nineteenth century, the number of mosques in the main cities rapidly declined. The Serbian capital of Belgrade was largely Muslim before the nineteenth century. But following the establishment of an autonomous Serbian principality in the first decades of the nineteenth century, the Muslim population was mostly expelled and most of the mosques were destroyed or dismantled. Similarly, the Jewish communities suffered restrictions they had not suffered in the Ottoman period, and were expelled or relocated from the towns outside Belgrade. This, of course, is a generalisation: the extent to which Muslims or Jews were massacred, expelled or persecuted varied according to country and period. This was not a matter of Nazi-style total extermination. Persecution and expulsion alternated and overlapped with efforts at cooption, assimilation and toleration. But the model of nationhood remained very much one that was based on Orthodox Christianity, in which non-Orthodox were, at best, viewed as less national than the Orthodox.

This model of religiously determined nationhood was not adopted only by Orthodox Christians, but also by the Muslim Turks. The establishment of a Turkish nation-state in the 1910s and 1920s involved the extermination or expulsion of literally millions of Christians. Formally, they were Greeks or Armenians. But this included Turkish-speaking Christians who were excluded from the Turkish nation solely because of their religion. Turkish nationhood, therefore, was based on the Muslim religion: it was inclusive of Kurds and other non-Turkish-speaking Muslims who inhabited Anatolia. But it was exclusive of Turkish-speaking Christians.

After establishing their nation-state, the Turks had a rather better record of treating the Jews than did the Balkan Christians. This was a legacy of the fact that the Muslims, as the elite group in the Ottoman Empire, had not viewed the Jews as outsiders in the same way that the Christians had done. But there was still some anti-Jewish activity on the part of the Turkish state which, with Nazi encouragement, reached its peak during World War II. Furthermore, in the great anti-Greek pogrom in Istanbul in 1955, Jews were also targeted.

Another example serves to illustrate the connection between religion and ethnicity in the Balkans. Both Serbia and Croatia entered the modern age with relatively small Jewish communities that could readily assimilate into the dominant Serbian and Croatian nations respectively. By contrast, in Bosnia there was no dominant nationality. So members of the Sephardic Jewish community in Bosnia developed a distinct sense of nationality of their own. They saw themselves as distinct from the Ashkenazim, who were culturally different. And as they were not oppressed by a dominant nationality that treated them as outsiders, they were less receptive to Zionism than were the Jews of most Central European countries. So the Bosnian Sephardim followed the general Bosnian pattern, whereby the different religious communities evolved into different nationalities.

There were some exceptions to the general rule of religiously based nationhood in the Balkans. The Albanians are the only major example of a Balkan nation for which religion is not the determining factor. The most likely explanation is that Albanian nationalism originated with the Catholic population among the Albanian-speakers. And the Catholics were not legally and economically subordinate to Muslim landlords in the way that Orthodox peasants throughout the Balkans were subordinate to Muslim landlords. So there was not the same degree of class oppression tied into the religious divide between Catholics and Muslims among the Albanian-speakers, as there was between Orthodox and Muslims among the Slavic-, Greek- and Turkish-speaking peoples. Interestingly, the Albanians’ record with regard to the Jews during the Holocaust was about the best in all of Nazi-occupied Europe; Albanians sheltered Jews more solidly than almost any other occupied people.

Another interesting case, for the purposes of comparison, is that of the Croats. Croatia was not part of the Ottoman Empire, so its social structure was not determined by the Ottoman system. Croatia had a relatively small Jewish community, so its anti-Semitism was fairly typical by the standards of Christian Europe. However, Croat nationalists were almost unique in Europe in the extent to which they were ready to embrace Muslims. Ante Starcevic, the father of integral Croat-nationalism, viewed the Bosnian Muslims as the purest of all Croats. According to the tradition he established, the Bosnian Muslims were the ‘flower of the Croat nation’. This was possible for Croat nationalists because, unlike the Orthodox peoples of the Balkans, Croatia had not been ruled and oppressed by the Ottomans. The Islamophile character of Croat nationalism was, of course, a way for it to lay claim to Bosnia, where the Catholics were only a small minority.

The different ways in which Serb and Croat nationalist ideology perceived the Muslims became apparent during World War II. Serb extreme nationalists – the Chetniks – carried out systematic massacres of Muslims and Catholics, and also murdered Jews or handed them over to the Nazis. Croat extreme nationalists – the Ustashas – carried out systematic massacres of the Orthodox Serbs and Jews. But not of Muslims, as the policy of the Ustashas was to treat Bosnian Muslims as Islamic Croats. In contrast to the nationalism of the Orthodox peoples of the Balkans, it was only in the 1990s that the Croat-nationalist mainstream became overtly anti-Islamic; this was due to the policy of the Croatian despot Franjo Tudjman, who aimed to join with the Serbs in partitioning Bosnia. What made the difference for Croat nationalists by the 1990s, compared to the 1940s, was that by then the Muslims had been formally recognised within the Yugoslav constitutional system as a nation in their own right, distinct from the Serbs and Croats. When Muslims could no longer be viewed as Islamic Croats and potentially assimilated, they became open to persecution by expansionist Croat nationalism.

By this period – the 1990s – both Serb and Croat nationalists were more likely to identify with Israel on an anti-Muslim basis than they were to indulge in anti-Semitism. Although the more extreme elements among Serb and Croat nationalists in the 1990s did sometimes express anti-Semitic views, they were generally astute enough to know the propaganda value of not being seen to be anti-Semitic, and they did try to appeal to Jewish opinion – though not very successfully. Albania and Croatia, therefore, are the exceptions that prove the rule: firstly, that anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish prejudice in the Balkans are essentially similar, in that both are prejudices directed against ethnic groups that have their origins in religious differences; and secondly, that Muslims are targeted and persecuted as an alien ethnic group – like the Jews – not simply as a religious community.

To go back to the case of the Serb Chetniks in World War II: they were an extreme-nationalist movement that systematically persecuted and killed the non-Orthodox population in Bosnia: Muslims, Croats and Jews. The Chetniks were engaged in a vicious war against the Yugoslav Partisans, who were a multinational resistance movement led by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. The Chetniks identified the Communists with the Jews, but also with the Muslims and Croats. One Chetnik leader even accused the Communists of destroying Orthodox Churches, and building mosques, synagogues and Catholic churches. In World War II, however, it was still possible for the Chetniks to waver between massacring Muslims, and attempting to co-opt them, on the grounds that Bosnian Muslims were ‘really’ Serbs. So as late as World War II, both Serb- and Croat-nationalists could still make some pretence at treating the Muslims as a religious group within their respective nations. One can compare this to the confusion among modern anti-Semites, until quite late in the day, as to whether the Jews were a religious or a racial group.

By the 1990s, however, despite lip service to the traditional nationalist view, that Bosnian Muslims were really just Islamic Serbs or Croats, in practice, this kind of assimilationism was no longer possible or relevant. Muslims were treated in practice as a hated, alien ethnic minority. There was no policy of forced conversion. Serb nationalists, and to a lesser extent Croat nationalists, ethnically cleansed Bosnia of Muslims who spoke their language, much as the Serbian regime attempted to cleanse Kosovo of the Albanians who spoke an entirely different language. Rather like anti-Semites, extreme Serb and Croat nationalists in Bosnia in the 1990s simultaneously viewed Muslims as a racially alien element, while portraying them in their propaganda as part of an international, global threat to Christian Europe.

Of course, there are differences between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism: anti-Semites traditionally portray the global Jewish conspiracy in terms of sneaky, intelligent puppet-masters working behind the scenes, whereas Balkan Islamophobes portray the global Islamic conspiracy in terms of mindless but fully visible – indeed visually striking – fanaticism. Hatred of Islam and Muslims has, for all its intensity as felt by Balkan Christian nationalists, never quite achieved the intensity of being an all-consuming end in itself, as it has for some anti-Semites. And of course, Balkan Islamophobes do not formally treat global Islam as a race, in the way that anti-Semites treat global Jewry as a race. But we are ultimately talking about ideological window-dressing used to justify the same type of persecution and violence.

It is nonsensical to argue that the systematic destruction of mosques and the Islamic heritage in Bosnia by Serbian forces, combined with a propaganda that stressed the role of mujahedin and of foreign Islamic states, was not an expression of Islamophobia, on the grounds that Islamophobia does not exist. But equally, it is nonsensical to argue that this campaign was genuinely motivated by hostility to Islam as an ideology: there was no pretence that Muslims were a danger because they might indoctrinate the Serbian population with subversive views. Serb nationalists in the 1980s and 90s made much of the growing threat of the Bosnian Muslims in Bosnia, and of Albanian Muslims in Serbia. But the danger they presented was not that these groups would spread Islam to the Serbs, and Islamify Serbia. Rather, the danger was that these groups would increasingly outbreed the Serbs, and turn them into increasingly small minorities in their own countries.

Thus, we are not talking about a threat equivalent to the Communist threat, as it was viewed in McCarthy’s US, or to the counter-revolutionary threat, as it was viewed in Stalin’s USSR. Muslim children in Serb-occupied Bosnia were not simply deported along with their parents, as they might have been if they were viewed as the children of subversives. Still less were they subjected to ideological reprogramming. Rather, they were themselves singled out for rape, torture and murder. Muslim women were raped with the stated goal of making them give birth to Serb babies. Biljana Plasvic, the Bosnian Serb vice-president, theorised about the Muslims being a genetically defective offshoot of the Serb  nation.

In sum, Islamophobia, in the Bosnian war, was an expression of hatred directed against an ethnic group, or groups. One of the paradoxes of this is that for all the Islamophobic hatred directed against the Balkan Muslim peoples by Balkan Christian nationalists, and indeed by the anti-Muslim bigots in the West who supported them, the Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo Albanians are among the most secularised Muslim peoples in the world. Just as Jewish atheists will always be the Christ-killers or ritual slaughterers of Christian children in the eyes of certain anti-Semites, so Bosnian Muslim and Albanian atheists will always be jihadis in the eyes of Islamophobes.

This paper was presented at the conference ‘Antisemitism and Islamophobia in Europe: Comparisons – contrasts – connections‘, that took place at University College London on 22-24 June.

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Tuesday, 1 July 2008 - Posted by | Anti-Semitism, Armenians, Balkans, Bosnia, Croatia, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide, Greece, Islam, Israel, Jews, Kosovo, Kurds, Political correctness, Serbia, Turkey

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  1. […] Greater Surbiton: Is Islamophobia equivalent to racism or Anti-Semitism? The view from the Balkans. […]

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  2. […] Greater Surbiton: Is Islamophobia equivalent to racism or anti-Semitism? The view from the Balkanks […]

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